A compelling and vitally important statement about wrongfully convicted prisoners freed by DNA evidence.
Again and again the revelations in Jessica Sanders' documentary brought audible gasps from the Hawaii International Film Festival audience. Here, in stark images and gut wrenching narrative, were the stories of men imprisoned, sometimes for 20 years and more, because of erroneous victim identification, sloppy or corrupt police work and over-zealous prosecutors. Here, in footage as raw as reality, is proof positive that much of the American judicial system is more righteous than just, and almost incapable of even saying to a guy, "I'm sorry," before dumping him on the streets, penniless.
"After Innocence" shows us the maddening frustration of convicts who fight to re-open their cases on the basis of DNA evidence, and then what becomes of them if and when that evidence exonerates them. It is a deeply disturbing picture. It also shows you the dedicated work of not-for-profit organizations such as The Innocence Project that are overwhelmed in their attempts to help. It is clear that there are literally thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people in America, most of them with little hope of ever being vindicated.
Sanders' film focuses on seven men, including a police officer, an army sergeant and a young father, all released, plus a man in Florida still behind bars over three years after irrefutable DNA evidence cleared him of rape. Some of them had been in solitary confinement on death row, frequently for decades, for crimes they did not commit. Eight years after being exonerated, the now-graying dad has been unable to get his conviction expunged from official records, making it almost impossible for him to find meaningful, full-time employment. Despite being absolved of any involvement in the crimes for which he was imprisoned, he is still treated as an ex-con.
"DNA is God's signature," says one man, imprisoned for well over 20 years. "And God doesn't lie." Unfortunately, our governmental systems don't always tell the truth.
Jessica Sanders was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2002 short documentary, "Sing." It was released in theaters and aired nationally on Public Television. "After Innocence" will also have a theatrical release and is scheduled to air on Showtime early in 2006. Eventually it will be released on DVD. It has the power to ignite a firestorm of protest over our failed judicial system and to be a catalyst for important change. Ms. Sanders, who sees herself as a filmmaker, not a journalist, is currently working on the screenplay for a dramatic film. When "After Innocence" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival she indicated she wants to continue to use film "as a way to give people a voice that don't necessarily have that means." She doesn't have a new documentary project in the works right now, but one can hope that she will continue to demonstrate her enormous talent in this field.
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